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Navigate Baby's Language Labyrinth

“A, B, C, Z!” exclaimed our 2-year-old, Rachel, as she pointed at a sweatshirt. My wife and I exchanged a surprised glance as we realized that our daughter had somehow grasped the concept of symbols even though she had uttered the wrong letter.

Like many parents, we’re puzzled by the dense, maze-like experience called language learning. Parents can more easily foster language acquisition when they understand how kids learn to speak and when there might be signs of speech delay.

How Babies Learn Sounds

Babies interact with others by listening to adult speech and by trying to identify and understand the specific properties of their native language. The social aspect of language emerges immediately as babies begin listening to sounds such as “r” and “l.” Initially, these sounds are simply acoustic, something the baby hears without rhyme or reason.

As they grow, babies acquire the ability to organize different sounds into categories that become building blocks for words. These sound categories are language-specific.

For example, “r” and “l” are important categories in English but are meaningless in Mandarin Chinese. An English-speaking baby older than 11 months would be able to distinguish “ray” from “lay,” while a Mandarin-speaking baby would not.

“Babies subconsciously count the number of times a phonetic unit (a basic sound) is used in the language they hear,” explains Paul Yoder, PhD, a language expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

Dr. Yoder says that babies track sounds best when listening to real people talk, and do not learn nearly as well from audio or video recordings. “There is something about social interaction that is important. It’s not just all cognitive. There is a social element even at the very, very early stages of language acquisition.”

Use Milestones Cautiously

Milestones are one way to monitor a child’s language development, but use them cautiously, advises Jenny Saffran, PhD, a language acquisition expert at the University of Wisconsin. Take the first word at the 12-month milestone, for example. “I guess the best way to put it is, if you say that the first word comes at 12 months, that means that for half the babies, the first word comes before 12 months and for half the babies it comes after 12 months. So both of those are typical,” she says.

Parents may become concerned or upset if their child does not hit a particular milestone on time. “Milestones can be misleading, I think, which is why it’s nice to focus on what your baby understands more than what your baby is saying,” says Dr. Saffran.

She illustrates the point with an example: Recently, she taught her 11-month-old child the difference between the mother’s name and the nanny’s name by saying “Give mommy five, give Jane five.” The child was able to do it. If Saffran were tied to milestones, she might have overlooked the child’s ability to understand which name was associated with each person.

Delayed Development

Language Development

Keep track of your child’s journey through the language maze. Basic stages:

4 to 8 months: Babies often coo and gurgle, progressing to babbling around 6 months of age. By 8 months, babies can remember single words.

9 to 12 months: Babies learn to pick out individual words in the speech stream that is everyday language. By 12 months, babies often understand up to 50 individual words. They also learn how to make gestures to communicate certain basic needs such as hunger or thirst.

12 to 18 months: Many children utter their first word, and some begin to use two-word phrases; comprehension increases considerably with some children understanding 150 words or more.

18 to 24 months: Children’s active vocabulary expands considerably. Parents often stop counting words at this point because they can’t keep up. Additionally, most toddlers produce and understand simple phrases such as “more juice.” They also understand long phrases, some sentences and even basic grammatical concepts such as “ing” for an action occurring in the present or the preposition “with.”

Dr. Yoder says parents need to distinguish between late-bloomers and kids who are truly delayed. “Kids who understand a lot of words and who use a lot of gestures but aren’t saying words by 24 months tend to be the late bloomers who are usually fine without early intervention even though they are not talking at 24 months,” he says.

“Kids who don’t seem to understand many words, or don’t use gestures to communicate very much and don’t talk by 24 months are often truly delayed and could probably benefit from early intervention,” Dr. Yoder says.

Early intervention refers to speech and language therapy conducted by a speech pathologist with expertise in children’s language development. Both Dr. Yoder and Dr. Saffran recommend consulting a qualified speech pathologist if parents have serious concerns about their child’s language development.

Helping Kids Learn

Wherever a child is in the language learning process, parents can help their kids with some basic techniques.

First, Dr. Yoder recommends that parents consciously put into words the child’s non-verbal communication. For example, when a baby points to a juice bottle the parent might say, “Oh, you want the juice.”

Second, he suggests focusing on compliance, which refers to children doing what parents ask them to do — for example, if a parent asks a child to open a jar, and the child completes this task. Compliance is important because it shows that the child understands.

Third, Dr. Yoder encourages descriptive talk. “The basic idea is talking about what the baby is doing without telling the baby what to do.” In other words, parents can practice during meals with statements such as “Abigail, do you like the banana? The banana is yellow.”

Parents can also help their kids by repeating and adding to the child’s two- or three-word statement. For example, the phrase “want ball” is not grammatically correct, but an adult can say, “You want the ball.” In this way, the parent gently and non-critically teaches the child that the statement needs to be a little bit longer and requires additional grammatical elements.

Dr. Yoder suggests similar action when the child’s pronunciation is incorrect, a normal occurrence when kids are first starting to talk. “It’s probably helpful, if the child is way off in his pronunciation, to acknowledge that what he’s said is right and then say it as an adult would say it.”

By focusing on what babies perceive and understand, parents can assess their children’s progress and avoid pressuring them to produce words before they are ready.

Frequent interaction is the best way to nurture a child’s language development. Indeed, at 26 months, Rachel is not only a chatterbox but seems to understand nearly everything we say. Was it really worth fretting over that first word?

Eric Olive is freelance writer.

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